PARIS — As couture week dawned on Sunday, Greek citizens went to the polls for their austerity referendum and the fashion flock drove off to Asnières-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris, for a garden party celebrating the opening of Louis Vuitton’s La Galerie. It made for a strange, bifurcated reality.
Down the Rue Louis Vuitton the black town cars snaked, disgorging passengers at the entry of a complex of buildings surrounding a verdant space where they could sip Champagne or health juices in specially made flacons, nibble ice cream cones and ogle the vision of the curator Judith Clarke, who mixed decades and products to create living history. Amid it all was Michael Burke, the brand’s chief executive, alternately discussing the exhibit — “everything is on four wheels, which is a metaphor for the company” — and, when asked, the Greek situation.
“Actually,” he said, “our Greek business is on fire. When economies are insecure, people want to put their money into tangible assets. Last week we were up 50 percent. It’s weird.”
Weird doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Haute couture week is a period that is surreal even in the most prosperous of times. The clothes are, after all, singular pieces that take thousands of hours to make by hand, and cost many thousands of dollars as a result. In more turbulent days, the ante gets upped accordingly.
Not just because this week, it seems like there are more parties that are more extravagant than ever: on Saturday night, a one-night-only nightclub courtesy of Miu Miu; on Sunday, in addition to Vuitton, a private dinner at the three-star restaurant Ledoyen to support amfAR, the foundation for AIDS Research, hosted by Carine Roitfeld and sponsored by Harry Winston; on Monday, two warring gala events in two major Parisian museums — the National Jewelry Institute awards dinner at the Louvre, and the Vogue Paris Foundation dinner at the Palais Galliera, both followed by the “Flower Obsession” ball hosted by Giambattista Valli and MAC; and on Tuesday, Lancôme’s 80th anniversary blowout. This is to name just a few.
But because, once the collections began, there we were in the Mona Bismarck American Center, an ornate 19th-century maison particulière beside the Seine, watching a collection that the designer Ulyana Sergeenko said had its roots in the period of “Soviet communal apartments”: that time after the 1917 revolution when Bolsheviks forced rich and poor to share the same space, and they partied together on New Year’s Eve.
This time around, Dita Von Teese and Michelle Rodriguez were sharing the front row, and everyone was sharing a view of Ms. Sergeenko’s trademark midcalf sculpted forms, most often bustier-topped and paired with unexpected relics from a once-lavish interior: fur pompoms, boudoir lace, a satin coat quilted like a coverlet, hobble skirts inspired by the “salute” lamp, and evening gowns with one breast laid almost bare, the contrast writ uncomfortably in the clothes themselves.
And there we were in the Bourse, the French stock market, where Donatella Versace had filled a Lucite runway with 25,000 yellow and purple orchids (real ones) for her Atelier Versace show. The same orchids created the outline of a Medusa’s head at the catwalk entry, through which appeared a parade of chiffon gowns (fluted, fluttery, flower-vined) that looked like nothing so much as a rock opera version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Edges were raw and layered, the better to flutter in the wind; velvet was hand-painted with gardens gone wild; corsetry was gridded and draped with three-dimensional roses; and trains exploded with petaled tiers, all of it paired with towering patent-leather knee-high boots or platform shoes. Imagine Titania gone to party with her fairy flock, and you’ll get the idea.
Generally, there are two theories of couture: it serves as “the dream,” an aesthetic escape hatch from the grimness of the day (or, as Ms. Sergeenko’s show notes stated, “a moment of pure evasion”), or it functions as a tool to perfect everyday life. On couture’s day one, we were firmly in the school of the former — even if at Schiaparelli, the creative director Bertrand Guyon sent out a carefully calibrated debut collection that edged the house that Elsa and the Dadaists built toward a new subtlety.
Put another way: We weren’t in the atelier of Elsa anymore, we were in what Mr. Guyon titled the Théâtre d’Elsa.
Vintage lottery machines lined the walls (an unspoken message about the vagaries of fashion?), celebrities, including Carice van Houten from “Game of Thrones,” lined the catwalk, and a restrained exuberance marked the clothes, which married over-the-top materials (brocade embroidered over in caviar beads; velvet glistening with paillette posies; mink intarsia featuring a portrait of Schiap herself) with basic shapes: narrow tuxedo trousers, chiffon blouses, fur vests, draped gowns and princess dance dresses.
It was a bit of a surprise itself, albeit a positive one. Sometimes one jeweled eye winking from a waistband is enough to get the performance across.
But sometimes you need an entire kaleidoscopic greenhouse built with plexiglass panes hand-painted in dappled shades of green and violet, blue and pink, yellow and rose, like a space-age Seurat. Or at least if you are Raf Simons, artistic director of Dior, you do.
And you need a carpet of lilac artificial turf spotted with giant faux berries, the better to create a landscape of “earthly delights” populated by garments cherry-picked from history, from medieval times through the Flemish masters and the 1970s, and genetically modified to fit the moment — the “tension between decrying luxury and the embracing of it” (at least according to the show notes). Strip all the whining away and acknowledge the contradiction of our situation, went the message, and what you find might surprise you.
Nightie-like chiffon dresses both short and ankle-length, for example, interspersed with wide-legged relaxed velvet trousers and trapeze neoprene coats with portrait collars sliced at one arm like a cape and sporting a generous fur sleeve at the other. Lean slithers of sleeveless pointillist dresses, the print “painted” in sequins or feathers, appeared either alone or trapped under tiny knit jersey vests or jeweled chain mail versions of the same. It was fantasy for the most part rendered powerfully functional (maybe not the one fur-sleeve looks).
“The reality and the unreality; you can’t have one without the other,” Mr. Simons said. He was talking fashion, of course. Or so it seemed.
An earlier version of this article misstated the given name of Schiaparelli’s creative director. He is Bertrand Guyon, not Bruno.